Think like water

by Daimen Hardie on December 17, 2015

Water is life, and when the natural processes of water purification and regulation are threatened so to is life.  Drought and flood are opposite extremes in a water cycle out of rhythm.  These problems can often be traced back to our neglect of nature’s way.

For example, in agriculture today the prevailing approach is largely one of exploitation.  Not unlike mining, conventional practices draw down nature’s reserves without replenishing them.  Water is wasted, or polluted.

Farmers and community leaders at the Rural Innovation Campus are studying practical techniques for reversing this downward trend.  Permaculture – a combination of the words ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture’ – aims to mend the tears in nature’s fabric.  It is a regenerative approach to building abundance for the long term.  Water, as the source of life, is always the first consideration in the design of Permaculture systems.

Young farmers studying Permaculture at the Rural Innovation Campus - Pemba, Tanzania


In Permaculture we look to nature for design solutions.  When it comes to water, natural landscapes function much like shock absorbers.  In times of heavy rainfall or snowmelt, intact wetlands and forests act like giant sponges to protect against severe flooding.  Water is soaked up and then slowly released into the surrounding environment, preventing erosion and pacifying fluctuations in the level of rivers and lakes. 

This slow-release regulation in turn keeps soil moisture available for relatively long periods of time, alleviating drought later in the year.  Nature’s genius has created a shock absorbing system that effectively turns one season’s problem of flooding into another season’s solution to drought.

Can we mimic nature in our agricultural landscapes to achieve the same results?

One method for achieving this invloves fitting the farm system to the natural contours of the landscape.  Doing so allows the farmer to follow nature’s lead when it comes to water – to slow it, spread it, and sink it.  By carefully shaping the land and using vegetation buffers, farmers can pacify the erosive forces of unchecked run-off and redirect it instead into the soil and groundwater.  When done properly this prevents both flooding and drought – just like a natural ecosystem.

Permaculture instructor Joseph Ntunyoi teaches students how to construct and use an 'A-Frame' for contour farming - Rural Innovation Campus, Pemba


Getting to know the contours of your property is the first step in matching your farm to the natural rise and fall of the land.  One easy to use and low-tech tool to help with this reconaissance is the ‘A-Frame’.  By walking an A-Frame across your land and marking its path you quickly establish level contour lines.  These reference lines reveal how water flows across the landscape and can in turn be used to design all aspects of your farm – the roads, garden rows, ditches, dams, ponds, etc. – so that they all have a regenerative effect on water cycles and soils, rather than a negative effect.

When it comes to aligning our agriculture with nature’s processes, the first step is to think like water . . .

Students and staff at the Rural Innovation Campus construct a swale on contour, an earthwork technique for regenerating agricultural landscapes - Pemba, Tanzania

comments powered by Disqus